Should the Church Have Contemporary Services and Traditional Services?


In my business school days my Strategic Marketing course covered a concept called market segmentation. Market segmentation can be illustrated in a simplified form by the concepts of brand consciousness and price consciousness. Consumers that are brand conscious will purchase products based upon brand name, either due to perceived quality or cultural cache, regardless of price. Price conscious consumers make their purchasing decision on price alone. In order to maximize profits companies will market both name brand products at a premium price and lower priced generic products. Most of the time the products are identical in quality and nature.  Tire manufacturers like Goodyear and Firestone, for example, produce and sell premium and lower priced tires under different names. These tire are made in the same factories, with the same materials, by the same company.

Why would manufacturers forego the premium pricing that could be demanded by selling the same products for less? Because there are many consumers who simply will not pay the premium for those items, and the seller would miss out on revenue. In other words, they are not foregoing additional profits because they never had them to begin with. Each additional dollar of revenue from the lower priced product line is incremental to total revenue. Markets can be further segmented as granularly as the data available for analysis. Some consumers are interested in high performance, other reliability, some like extra features while others prefer simplicity.  Rather than abandoning whole segments, manufacturers capture more Market Share by offering products that appeal to multiple Market Segments.

Market Segmentation and the Church

What does this have to do with the church?  Well, for quite a while now it has become standard operating procedure in many churches, especially those considered to be most “effective,” to hold multiple worship services targeted at disparate affinity groups. We hold small chapel services that feel more intimate, rock concert style contemporary worship for the younger people in meeting halls painted black with stage lighting, traditional sanctuary services with robed choirs and organ music for the older crowd, and action filled children’s worship services.

The point is that the most successful churches have recognized what manufactures have seen for decades; the market for their services is highly segmented and in order to maximize market share, we must provide a product offering for as many market segments as possible.

Some of you may be thinking that this approach to worship sounds consumeristic and antithetical to what the church should represent in the world.  In defense of this approach, one should point out that the mission is to spread the Gospel of Christ to all the world, and that is exactly what they are doing. Ignoring the reality that there are diverse groups within our society who are not all going to be drawn into the same styles and patterns of worship will not result in a deeper penetration of the church’s message into our culture and communities.

There are three aspects of worship: Primary is content – the Gospel of Jesus Christ; Secondary is Structure – this is the most oft overlooked in worship design and planning, yet the place where liturgy actually resides; Tertiary is Style – confused by most for liturgy, but actually even more surface level.  Style is the aspect we hear all the argument over, and while in some respects the least important, it becomes extremely important when we consider that it can be an obstacle to the Gospel being received.  Style is where the Gospel becomes translatable across cultures, and cultures can be specific to age, ethnicity, place of origin, and a host of other factors.  In many respects, so long as we maintain a uniform Content, and a solid and sound Structure, our worship can take on many styles to help overcome cultural obstacles.  But there is a danger.

Overlaying a principle like market segmentation onto the church, the Body of Christ, implicitly communicates that it is okay for us to be divided, while it is the prayer of Christ and the nature of God to bring unity in the Body. You may object that people don’t think that deeply on such things or even realize things like this. But that is exactly the point. Regardless of the message being preached from the pulpit, sung in the songs, or taught in small groups, the unspoken, implied messages our actions and structures communicate are often more powerful precisely because they pass unfiltered into our subconscious.

Worship is the conversation of the Most Holy God with his people. It is not merely a private, personal affair, it is the way in which we are drawn together and built up into the body of Christ and propelled into his service. It is the place where we meet one another and our Lord, where he purifies us, where we are filled with his presence, where we are fused one to another. The reality of the world around us may in fact be that our communities are highly segmented, and that every group wants something different. I believe this is true. But the message of the Gospel—the prophetic message—and the mission of the church has never been about adapting to the reality of the world or giving people what they want. (If that were true Jesus would have overthrown the Roman Empire and set up his palace in Jerusalem.) Rather it is about confronting the realities of the world with the one true reality of the Kingdom of God, of saying we know what you want, but there is a more excellent way.

As we who are charged with the sacred duty of leading the church discern how God is calling us to be incarnational in our communities, I hope we will consider the implied messages we are sending. Please understand, this is not an indictment against multiple worship services or even styles. I do believe, however, that there are some very powerful theological considerations regarding how we structure our worship that should be factored in as we wrestle with this calling to lead the people of God to worship.


Jonathan Lawson is the Global Missions Pastor at Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek, Georgia. He previously served as Coordinator of Worship in the Chapel Office at Asbury Theological Seminary. Jonathan holds an Undergraduate degree in Finance and a MBA from Kennesaw State University, and spent 15 years in the banking industry.